Mike Kelley

Jablonka Galerie | Berlin

High production values and immersive media strategies are often viewed as incompatible with a truly critical practice in contemporary art. Mike Kelley’s recent show, “Kandors”—which confronted the viewer with an overwhelming assembly of crystalline architectural sculptures, videos shown both as wall projections and on monitors, and light boxes with lenticular image panels—might understandably have provoked such skepticism: The fabrication was obviously costly, and the exhibition was on a scale befitting a museum—although, under the present conditions of market imperialism, one rarely finds such a display at any public institution anymore, certainly not in Berlin. Yet Kelley demonstrated that the ostentatious display of economic “value” and the critical evaluation of commodified object relations (and their psychosocial implications) are by no means mutually exclusive.

The works that were on view at Jablonka Galerie are part of Kelley’s latest project, a group of thirty-five pieces that take as their starting point the imaginary city of Kandor, the capital of Superman’s home planet, Krypton. According to the plot of the comic-book series, Kandor fell under the control of the villain Brainiac, who miniaturized the city and placed it beneath a bell jar before the planet was destroyed. In an episode from 1958, Superman takes possession of the city, which he preserves in his secret Fortress of Solitude until 1975, when he is finally able to transform it back to its original size. The superhero eventually fashions a replica of the nifty glass container as a personal memento.

The plural title of Kelley’s show refers to the curious fact of the city’s ever-shifting representation in the Superman comics: Kandor has been depicted more than one hundred different ways since 1938. The ten central works in Kelley’s exhibition take depictions of the city beneath the bell jar from the DC Comics and translate them into three-dimensional architectural models in sprawling sculptural arrangements. Each is covered by a handblown, colored-glass bell jar, about three feet in height and lit from below, mounted on a base; they are connected via hoses to metallic oxygen canisters. Additional stylized views of Kandor, alterations of images appropriated from the comic books, are presented in lenticular light boxes. Each glass bottle appears again on adjacent wall projections, which display the corresponding jar in a swirling tumult. Kelley also screened four videos, featuring his own “new age” music, showing crystals being formed in canning jars; these were echoed by resin models of the city, scattered throughout the exhibition, which seemed to be more the result of organic crystal growth than of architectural construction.

These works are reminiscent of Kelley’s 1995 Educational Complex, in which the artist combined what he remembered of the architecture of every school he had ever attended into a single model, using white blocks to represent what escaped his recollection—thus expanding the scope of institutional critique from art-world spaces to psychosocial milieus of enclosure. In “Kandors,” these selective—or repressed—memories are replaced by an unstable, fetishized aesthetic placeholder for a fantastic locale that in psychoanalytical terms could be described as an object of regressive externalization. These works present the viewer with a striking paradox: They show figures of the monumental conflated with moments of contingency—a yellow rag lies on one sculpture, as if offhandedly tossed there; a rustic pail, elegant pillows, and a kitschy flower arrangement interrupt other futuristic scenarios like anonymous uncanny relics of domestic life. In a recent conversation with John C. Welchman about institutional critique, Kelley succinctly noted that “focusing only on monetary exchange in these discussions was too limited.” As he pointed out, even the “commodity art” of the ’80s—although equally “infatuated with the art world,” as it were—“rarely addressed commodification as it relates to . . . object relations.” Kelley’s resurrection of “commodity art” deserves credit for having eliminated at least this latter limitation.

André Rottmann

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.